Spend one afternoon with Sam Roberts, and you’ll spend a lot more time looking up.
The 35-year-old advertising consultant is obsessed with ‘ghost signs’ – old painted advertisements that are visible on walls in certain high streets, even though the people who paid for them are long gone. Heavily faded and several metres above street level, these elusive images offer historians a fascinating glimpse into local history.
Sam’s passion for them is infectious. Having first noticed a ghost sign in 2006 (picture), he has since devoted more and more of his time into researching the historical adverts. He began offering guided tours around Stoke Newington last year in order to share his passion, and has written blog posts and articles on the subject.
“They’re wonderful things,” he tells me. “The fact that they were created by the human hand means you feel some connection to the people who made them. It’s fascinating to see pictures of the signs, but seeing them in the flesh is another type of experience.”
As he points the signs out to me on a walk around Stoke Newington, I’m struck by how many there are. Sam explains that the neighbourhood is more densely populated with ghost signs than any other area in the UK. Around every corner you can see flashes of faded paint, hidden in plain sight, advertising everything from bread, matches and cigarettes to local plumbers and fountain pen repairs. Often, small family-run businesses would use whatever space they had to publicise their services, meaning that even the smallest of spaces was covered with adverts.
“I see them as whispers from the past,” Sam says. He shows me a sign immediately above us, a neat, white square painted onto crumbling brick, brightly lit in the morning sun. The peeling black letters are hard to make out, but if you squint you can make out the name ‘R. Ellis’. The information unveiled through this tiny clue is extensive.
Sam tells me what he’s learned: in 1877, a man called Richard Ellis lived in the house with his wife Elizabeth, and created the sign to advertise his work as an ironmonger. He died in 1898, and was buried across the road in Abney Park, survived by his wife who lived there for another 20 years. Two of the couple’s children didn’t live past their first year.
While the signs themselves are fading, the level of interest in them certainly isn’t. In 2010, the History of Advertising Trust used images collected by Sam and other historians to launch a digital archive of ghost signs, which documents more than 800 sites across the UK and Ireland. Still growing today, it is the largest collection of photographs of its kind in existence. Last year, Sam asked other enthusiasts for contributions to create a ghost signs calendar. He received over 100 photographs from 11 different countries.
Most of the adverts were painted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but, as billboards and posters became cheaper alternatives, their popularity quickly faded. None of the signs are in good shape, but to restore them would take away their charm. And as they mostly originate from one small window of history, does Sam worry that they’ll one day disappear?
He’s not particularly concerned. “The best thing to do is raise awareness to private property owners so they know that these signs are here. Hopefully they’ll think ‘Hang on, I’ve got one of those!’
“But for every one that we lose to demolition or graffiti, we gain another one when it’s revealed. Often when one sign fades it reveals an older one poking through underneath it. So I don’t worry too much about it.”
Sam’s fortnightly tours cost £12.50 per person and last about two hours. You can book a place here: http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/tours